How the Pandemic Cured My Mother Guilt As soon as and For All
When I had my first baby, I knew that it would be difficult to go back to work, that I would miss it, cry and worry. But what I didn’t see coming was the wave of guilt that settled in my chest as I left him with his nanny share on the first morning and walked the longest blocks of my life to the train station. I know most working mothers remember this feeling.
I was a proud working woman – I spent years in college and graduate school, in internships and entry-level positions – to advance my career. I valued my professional empowered self. But even after my second baby, I was always followed by that nagging sense of guilt that whispered in my ear that I was selfish, that I should be at home with my children.
For six years, over two pregnancies, I had to drive to meetings that lasted several days for work, and as soon as I drove to the airport I felt guilty. I sat in conference rooms for hours wondering what my boys are doing and FaceTiming them at night to try to be present in their day. I sat on the airport floors waiting for planes, scrolling through photos of them on my phone and texting home for updates, battling my way through dark, lonely flights home to get the pilot to go faster to fly.
When I wasn’t traveling, even if I was just commuting to the office for days, a voice in my head told me that I wasn’t a good mom because I focused too much on work and too little on her life. There was a constant tug-of-war between work and my kids, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t live up to my own expectations in any part of my life.
All of a sudden, COVID-19 locked us up at home and our family of four was sealed in a bubble of little boy energy, conference calls, and the inability of my husband and I to juggle entertainment and education with remote full-time jobs. Everything outside of our four walls has stopped. The work-oriented part of my life began to mix with my personal life. My work clothes and shoes began to gather dust and were replaced by leggings and trainers. First, I reached out and tried to hold on to my work personality – that I was a dedicated, hardworking woman who always put my job first in the eyes of my employer. But as that ideal got further and further away and my kids showed up more and more on my video calls, I had to share it.
Over time, I found myself singing “Let It Go” to myself over sinks full of dishes as I picked up 10,000 Legos from the wooden floor. I began to withdraw from being excellence in every aspect of my job and began to choose my battles. And I noticed something new: I spent all day every day with my children. I saw her hair grow longer, her vocabulary expanded, her art projects pile up.
There has been a profound reorientation in the forced slowdown in life. Since I no longer had to make lists for my next business trip or that Pinterest-worthy birthday party in two months to catch up on my time, I pulled out a cookbook and tried a few new recipes. I created a fairy garden in the backyard with my 6 year old, which took us all day on a Saturday. I made pumpkin donuts and lit scented candles in the summer because autumn is our favorite time of year. I listened when my 4 year old asked, “Mom, are you cuddling with me?” And would often sit on the couch watching TV.
And then something else appeared. I realized that I was becoming a better, more present mom. I slowed down.
I really looked at my children, listened to their questions, and was curious. When terrible tragedies unfolded outside of our bladders, I realized that the happiest place we could be was home together. And that was a privilege.
COVID has grounded me both literally and figuratively, and my working mom’s guilt has evaporated. The noise of all these outer parts of my life stopped and all I have now is the clear sound of my sons’ voices. And it feels good.
I know that I am very lucky to still be able to work from home when so many other mothers have to go back to work or have to quit their jobs altogether. But for me too, some days are better than others. When my boys get home from school in the afternoon, they watch TV or play video games for two hours on many days before I can finish my calls and finally emerge from my office to play and start dinner. But at least I am able to be right there, not to go on trips and to sleep alone in a hotel room, which they miss like before, and compensate with list creation and party planning. I just have to get out of my home office and into her little world and leave work for the night behind me while I sing my new theme song while I close the office door. And that’s something I hope to keep after the pandemic.
Donna Laverdiere is a part-time writer and full-time health policy expert in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the day, she spends her time making health care more affordable for people on low incomes. At night she juggles writing and mothering two energetic boys. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and Scary Mommy, and she publishes her articles on donnalaverdiere.com.